Parents Fulfill Broken Dreams Through Their Kids
June 20, 2013

Do Parents Try To Fulfill Broken Dreams Through Their Kids?

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE has reached the same conclusion that many of us have intuited after watching the reality show “Toddlers and Tiaras": some parents see their children as a means for fulfilling their own unrealized ambitions or desires.

"Right from the beginning of psychology, there have been theories that parents transfer their own broken dreams onto their children," said study co-author Brad Bushman, a professor of communications and psychology at Ohio State University. "But it really hasn't been experimentally tested until now."

Conducted in the Netherlands, the study involved 73 parents, mostly mothers, who had a child between 8 and 15 years old. The parents were first asked to complete a questionnaire designed to measure how connected they felt to their child or children — ranging from totally separate to almost completely connected. Known as the Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale (IOS), the image-based test is commonly used in psychology and has produced reliable results, according to the study.

The parents were then randomly sorted into two groups. One group was instructed to list two ambitions they had not been able to reach and describe why achieving these goals were important to them. The other group was given similar instructions, but told to focus on an acquaintance's ambitions — not their own.

Some of the parents' unfulfilled dreams included becoming a professional athlete, publishing a novel and starting a successful business. After priming the participants with thoughts of unfulfilled ambitions, they were asked several questions about having their child achieve these dreams.

The results of these sessions showed that parents in the first group, who reflected on their own missed achievements, were more likely to desire that their children reach the set goals, but only if they expressed the feeling that their child was a part of themselves.

Those who felt this type of strong connection to their child were also much more likely to want their children to fulfill their dreams — but only when they were asked to write about themselves, as opposed to an acquaintance.

While not surprising, Bushman said the study´s findings were significant.

"Some parents see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as separate people with their own hopes and dreams," Bushman explained. "(These) parents then may bask in the reflected glory of their children, and lose some of the feelings of regret and disappointment that they couldn't achieve these same goals. They might be living vicariously through their children.“

The study authors suggested several different courses for future research based on these findings.

“One interesting question is whether children's accomplishments actually make parents feel more successful themselves," they wrote. “Another question is whether the present findings extend beyond parent-child relationships."

The researchers posited that the desire to see someone else fulfill certain goals or dreams could extend to the relationship between spouses or romantic partners.

“Our findings may represent a universal relationship mechanism to deal with unfulfilled ambitions," the authors wrote.

The team also admitted that the study could be flawed because mothers were overrepresented, and there may be significant gender differences between how fathers and mothers deal with unfulfilled ambitions. They also noted that parental desires may not translate into actual parenting practices.